Teaching a system – on Chinese vocabulary learning

My first class at Nanjing University was a disaster.

Chinese classes are organised by level, based on an assessment of students’ competence at the beginning of term. I took the test and was placed in a ‘gao shang’ class – or early advanced. I saw this placement as a quiet achievement – after all, I studied the language on my own and at achieved quite a bit in parallel. And I was excited to start: I would meet other Chinese learners from around the world, I would finally get some proper guidance in my learning, and I would gain motivation from the classroom setting to cement all the Chinese I wasn’t sure I knew.

That’s not what happened. Our class began with a long presentation of rules and assessment criteria. Then we all introduced ourselves in turn. Seven girls from Korea enjoyed reading and music but couldn’t sing. Two Germans were looking forward to their classes. A Japanese guy really liked alcohol. And then we started looking at p.9 of the book, ‘Shengci’.

‘Shengci’ – ‘new words’ – became an immediate nightmare. This was our very first class. We knew what our assessment criteria would be – participation in class, exams, and regular dictation tests – but nothing had been said about actual learning goals, or the topics we would address, or what the book structure was. No, the first step was on p.9, looking at word after word: ‘sweet snacks’, ‘invite someone over’, ‘resist’, ‘temptation’. The teacher painfully wrote them on the blackboard and started with number one. Followed thirty minutes of pure detail.

I realise I was lucky with my education. This was surely the worst hour of teaching I attended since middle school. I felt intense depression. I’d been told I shouldn’t expect too much of the teachers, but I wasn’t thinking that bad. Was that their idea of language learning? A pile of unconnected and arbitrary details to memorize, then regurgitate in dictation tests,? I was at least able to put a name on my plight. I’m a super-intuitive learner, I need the full picture, I cannot get the parts if I don’t have a sense of the whole.

I may not have the most common intellectual profile internationally, and maybe China doesn’t value this type of mind much. But still, I think there’s a double problem with the way this class was conducted. The first is the lack of order and priority:  we’re given a list of ShengCis based on an arbitrary text, and expected to memorise all of them – though clearly some are important, others accessory. More importantly, the structure of the class does not encourage or help us integrate these new words into the linguistic system we’ve all developed already.

Language forms a system of interconnected parts, and linguistic progress happens when parts of that system become more precise – when the learner is able to know when a certain grammar structure is appropriate, better distinguishes two sounds, or develops alternative ways to say ‘good’. At least, this has always been my teaching philosophy: my students are not empty vessels to fill with knowledge. They come with an existing system in their head, and my goal is to clarify, expand and improve what is already there. That is why I believe that piecemal ShengCi learning is a complete waste of time. And this teacher I got in Gao Shang should seriously retrain.

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